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Chanukah 2012: Guide for the Perplexed

Chanukah highlights the moral-high-ground of Jews in their ancestral land.
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Photo Credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90

Based on Jewish Sages

1.  Chanukah is the only Jewish holiday which commemorates a Land of Israel national liberation struggle, unlike Passover (the Exodus from Egypt), Sukkot/Tabernacles & Shavouot/Pentacost (on the way from Egypt to the Land of Israel), Purim (deliverance of Jews in Persia), etc. Chanukah is the longest Jewish holiday (8 days) with the most intense level of Light (8 consecutive nights of candle lighting).

2.  The key Chanukah developments occurred, mostly, in Judea and Samaria: Mitzpah (also Prophet Samuel’s burial site), Beth El mountains (Judah’s first headquarters), Beth Horon (Judah’s victory over Seron), Hadashah (Judah’s victory over Nicanor), Beth Zur (Judah’s victory over Lysias), Ma’aleh Levona (Judah’s victory over Apolonius), Adora’yim (a Maccabees’ fortress), Elazar & Beit Zachariya (Judah’s first defeat), Ba’al Hatzor (Judah defeated and killed), the Judean Desert, etc. Unified JerUSAlem was the Capital of the Maccabees.  Chanukah is not a holiday of “occupation.” Chanukah highlights the moral-high-ground of Jews in their ancestral land.

3.  Shimon the Maccabee - who succeeded Judah and Yonatan the Maccabees – defied an ultimatum by the Syrian emperor, Antiochus (Book of Maccabees A, Chapter 15, verse 33), who demanded an end to the “occupation” of Jerusalem, Jaffa, Gaza, Gezer and Ekron, Shimon declared: “We have not occupied a foreign land; we have not ruled a foreign land; we have liberated the land of our forefathers from foreign occupation.”

4.  Chanukah’s historical context (Books of the Maccabees and the Scroll of Antiochus) 

Alexander The Great – who held Judaism in high esteem and whose Egyptian heir, Ptolemy II, translated the Torah to Greek – died in 323BCE following 12 glorious years.  Consequently,the Greek Empire disintegrated into five, and thirty years later into three, kingdoms: Macedonia, Syria and Egypt.  The Land of Israel was militarily contested by Syria and Egypt. In 198BCE, Israel was conquered by the Syrian Antiochus III, who considered the Jewish State as an ally.  In 175BCE, a new king assumed power in Syria, Antiochus (IV) Epiphanies, who wished to replace Judaism with Hellenic values and assumed that Jews were allies of Egypt. In 169BC, upon his return to Syria from a war against Egypt, he devastated Jerusalem, massacred the Jews, forbade the practice of Judaism (including the Sabbath, circumcision, etc.) and desecrated Jerusalem and the Temple.  The 167BCE-launched rebellion against the Syrian (Seleucid) kingdom featured the Hasmonean (Maccabee) family: Mattityahu, a priest from the town of Modi’in, and his five sons, Yochanan, Judah, Shimon, Yonatan and Elazar.  The heroic (and tactically creative) battles conducted by the Maccabees, were consistent with the reputation of Jews as superb warriors, who were hired frequently as mercenaries by Egypt, Syria, Rome and other global and regional powers.

5.  The Hasmonean dynasty

*Mattityahu son of Yochanan; the priest-led rebellion – 166/7BCE

*Judah the Maccabee, son of Mattityahu – 166-161BCE

*Yonatan the Maccabee, son of Mattityahu – 161-143BCE

*Shimon the Maccabee, son of Mattityahu – 143-135BCE

*Yochanan Hyrcanus son of Shimon – 135-104BCE

*…

*Mattityahu Antigonus – 40-37BCE

6.  The name Maccabee (מכבי or מקבי) is a derivative of the Hebrew word Makevet (מקבת), Power Hammer, which described Judah’s tenacious and decisive fighting capabilities.  It could be a derivative of the Hebrew verb Cabeh (כבה), to extinguish, which described the fate of Judah’s adversaries.  Another source of the name suggests that Maccabee, מכבי, is the Hebrew acronym of “Who could resemble you among Gods, Jehovah” ( מי כמוך באלים י).

7.  The origin of the term – Chanukah – is education-oriented.

According to the first book of Maccabees, Judah instituted an eight day holiday on the 25th day of the Jewish month of Kislev, 165BCE, in order to commemorate the inauguration (Chanukah, חנוכה, in Hebrew) of the holy altar and the Temple, following Syrian desecration. A key feature of Chanukah is the education/mentoring of the family (Chinuch חינוך and Chonech חונך in Hebrew), commemorating Jewish history. The Hebrew word, Chanukah, consists of two words, Chanu חנו in Hebrew (they rested/stationed) and Kah כה in Hebrew (which is equal to 25, (referring to the Maccabees’ re-consecration of the Temple on the 25th day of Kislev.  Some have suggested that the timing of Christmas (December 25th) and the celebration of the New Year 8 days later (January 1) have their origin in Chanukah, which always “accompanies” December.

8.  Chanukah is the holiday of light, commemoration, optimism and libertyChanukah celebrates the liberation of JerUSAlem.  The first day of Chanukah is celebrated when daylight is balanced with darkness, ushering in optimism for brighter future. Chanukah is celebrated in Kislev (כסלו), the month of miracles (e.g., Noah’s Rainbow appeared in Kislev) and the month of security/safety (the Hebrew word Kesel-כסל means security).  The first and last Hebrew letters of Kislev (כסלו – כו) equal 26 (in Jewish Gimatriya) – the total numerical value of the Hebrew spelling of Jehovah - יהוה. Moses completed the construction of the Holy Ark on the 25th day of Kislev, as was the date of the laying the foundation of the Second Temple by Nehemiah. The 25th (Hebrew) word in Genesis is Light (OR, אור), which is a Jewish metaphor for the Torah. The word which precedes “light” isיהי (“let there be” in Hebrew) – 25 in Gimatriya. The 25th stop during the Exodus was Hashmona (same root as Hasmonean in Hebrew).  Chanukah commemorates one of the early Clashes of Civilizations: the victory of light (Maccabees) over darkness, the few over the many (scarce light can penetrate darkness), liberty over slavery and remembrance over forgetfulness. The Hebrew spelling of darkness – חשכה – employs the same letters as forgetfulness - שכחה.

About the Author: Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger is consultant to Israel’s Cabinet members and Israeli legislators, and lecturer in the U.S., Canada and Israel on Israel’s unique contributions to American interests, the foundations of U.S.-Israel relations, the Iranian threat, and Jewish-Arab issues.


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